Omar Bradley, left, speaks at a mayoral candidates forum in March. Next… (Barbara Davidson, Los Angeles…)
Poised and polished in an electric-blue blazer, 31-year-old urban planner Aja Brown prepared to make her case to an audience full of voters — many of them skeptics — that if elected mayor she could be the new face of Compton.
With her youthful energy, master's degree in planning from USC and a near-decade of experience working in cities, she hopes to convince residents that she has what it takes to move Compton beyond years of chaotic politics, financial meltdowns and a reputation for corruption.
But before Brown could make her first remarks, a side door opened. Compton's former mayor, Omar Bradley, sauntered into the debate and waved to the crowd.
Audience members greeted the unexpected appearance of the towering, suit-clad figure with thunderous applause. One woman yelled: "Thank you, God. Now the truth just walked in!"
Bradley had disregarded his doctor's advice and checked out of the hospital where he was recovering from surgery to unclog his arteries. He took his seat and quipped: "Compton is an emergency situation, and we need people who know the way to the hospital."
He went on to make light of the legal troubles that continue to dog him: "I've been to the White House, and I've been to the big house. If you want to be mayor of Compton, that cannot come from a book."
Brown, 31, has neither Bradley's larger-than-life appeal nor his baggage, but she represents a potential changing of the guard in Compton.
"I know what it takes to move cities forward," she said. "It's not about rhetoric and great speaking, but it takes relationships."
The two candidates face off in Tuesday's election after beating out Compton's longtime mayor Eric Perrodin in April's primary, as well as a crowded field of candidates that included former child star Rodney Allen Rippy.
Bradley, 55, a former teacher with a master's degree from Cal State Dominguez Hills and an honorary doctorate from an acupuncture school, was raised in Compton and served two terms as mayor before Perrodin unseated him in 2001. Three years later, he was convicted of misappropriating about $7,500 in public funds by using city money for personal expenses such as golf rounds, cigars and in-room movies at a hotel.
An appeals court reversed the conviction last year, citing a later ruling that found that prosecutors must prove that officials knew or should have known their conduct was illegal. Prosecutors plan to retry Bradley.
As mayor, Bradley cleaned up Compton's streets, created job programs and brought in a hotel and casino. But opponents complained that he was overbearing — sometimes downright frightening — and that he gave jobs to friends and family members.
Bradley's defense attorney acknowledged during his trial that Bradley "pushed, he hustled, he got in people's faces" but said he had to operate that way to get anything done.
Many community members believe the charges against him were petty and still remain fiercely loyal to Bradley.
"He was just not mature enough, and now he is," said Forrest R. Smith, 68, who ran against Bradley for City Council in 1989 but now supports him. Smith had his own troubles with the law once — he served prison time in Texas for robbery more than 40 years ago — but went on to become a pastor.
"No one takes this lightly, this election, because this will turn everyone around to find that everyone has a second chance," he said.
But others see Bradley as one of a succession of city leaders who abused their authority.
"I don't think we need his leadership any more. We saw in concrete evidence over the years what his people did," said Jemel Jones, 32. "We need someone that's fresh."
Brown has family roots in Compton, where she has lived for the last four years, but was raised on the other side of Los Angeles County, in the foothill community of Altadena.
Brown's mother, Brenda Jackson, 60, lived in Compton as a girl and remembered an idyllic childhood catching crayfish in Compton Creek and trying to raid the strawberry patches. But in 1977, a few days before Christmas, Jackson's mother, Lena Young, was murdered in her home on Atlantic Drive. The crime was never solved.
Jackson had left Compton a few years earlier and never moved back. When Brown and her husband bought a home in Compton in 2009 after joining a local church, Jackson said, "Deep down inside, I was apprehensive."
"I just never thought I would be in this area again, after my mother," she said recently, as she joined her daughter in walking precincts.
Brown began a full-time job in the city of Gardena while finishing her master's degree. She later worked for Inglewood and then for Compton's redevelopment agency.
Compton laid her off in 2011 during its fiscal crisis, but Brown stayed in the city and turned her attention to her nonprofit, which focuses on mentoring youth.
Still, some residents question the depth of her commitment to the city. Julius Franklin, 31, voted for Brown in the primary election but now has mixed feelings.